The public outcry continued in China's cyberspace days after Haobo, a two-month-old boy, was killed by a man who stole his parents' car with the child inside.
The incident attracted attention at the highest levels of government, and raised much online finger-pointing to the suspect, police, the parents, Chinese media and society. It also shed light on censorship in China, after a decree from propaganda chiefs on how local media should cover the case was leaked online.
The tragedy started Monday morning when Haobo's father, who lives in the northeastern Chinese city of Changchun, left him in his car with the engine running while he went into the store he owns to turn on indoor heating.
When he came out, the car was gone with Haobo inside.
The parents turned to the police and the public for help. Over 8,000 police officers took part in a manhunt, searching neighborhoods and parks.
READ: Body of baby killed in China carjacking found
The news of Haobo's disappearance spread quickly, his picture forwarded across Chinese websites and on mobile phones. Millions of netizens were on tenterhooks, waiting for updates.
Over 30 hours after the car theft, a 48-year-old man named Zhou Xijun turned himself up to the police. He admitted to strangling the toddler and burying him in the snow. The baby's body has been found later.
This sad story reminded me of what happened last year to Wang Yueyue, the 2-year-old girl in southern China who was run over by a truck twice and was left dying unassisted as 18 people passed her by. Her plight, and the lack of human compassion, also triggered nationwide soul-searching.
Many Chinese complain about the decline in public ethics. To some, this week's death generated debate about the nation's apparent moral decay in the midst of an economic boom.
"How can one even imagine strangling a baby just to steal a car?" Ping Gu, a white-collar worker in Beijing tells me. "What about basic humanity, conscience, values?"
At the ongoing annual meeting of China's legislature, Premier Wen Jiabao obliquely acknowledged the problem, too.
"We should greatly increase education in public morality, professional ethics, family virtues and personal integrity," the outgoing premier said in his state-of-the-nation speech last Monday. Wen proposed to "foster healthy social conduct."
Censors jump on coverage
Meanwhile, China's propaganda czars have imposed a gag rule to stop the negative reporting on the case. In an internal decree issued Tuesday soon after the killer surrendered, they instructed the local media in Changchun to mute their reporting.
A screen grab of the decree was captured before it was deleted. Translation:
1. No front page coverage, the story shouldn't be bigger than half a page on newspapers. TV channels shall not run long feature reports.
2. Reports should criticize the killer and highlight the positive efforts made by the police.
3. No questioning or finger-pointing of the police. Don't criticize the city's (Skynet) surveillance network. Stop interviewing victim's family and relatives.
4. Without further orders, newspapers should stop covering the incident starting tomorrow. TV and radio should stop covering after tomorrow's morning news.
Perusal of the local Changchun newspapers the past few days show that the local media have acceded to the decree. Recent reports on the incident were short, tucked inside and uplifting.
On March 7, four days after the incident, the Changchun Daily published on page 4 a short report saying that the Changchun city officials had visited Haobo's relatives, who "expressed thanks to people from various sectors for their concern and hard work."
A local Changchun journalist, who requested anonymity, complained of being "caught in between a furious public who wants follow up stories on the incident and the propaganda officials who imposed the gag order."